Minimalist in DC

The Quest for Less "Stuff" & More Time

Tag: productivity (page 1 of 2)

Saying No

Saying NoA few months ago I was promoted into a new job and I became the manager of the team on which I’d worked.

I won’t lie or sugarcoat this: the last few months have been rough. Instead of being an individual contributor on one team, I’m now expected to continue the duties I had (because our team didn’t grow in a way that allowed me to give up my responsibilities), be part of a leadership team, and acquire still more tasks related to that team. Two teams make it feel like I have two full-time jobs.

I haven’t been handling it well (or, at least, not the way I’d wanted). I used to love solving problems for people (even if it meant performing boring admin work), but now there’s so much on my plate that I need to force myself to block time to get the big career-moving stuff done. I’ve never been this overwhelmed in my life and it is imperative that I get better at saying no. I wrote this blog partially to brainstorm ways to do that better.

When to Say No

Seth Godin, Marketer Extraordinaire and writer of one of my favorite daily blogs, read my mind and published this insightful post about when to say No. Read it! I’ve printed it out and put it on my desk as a daily reminder not of what I should say no to, but what I MUST say no to.

How to Say No

That brings me to another tough problem. How, when you love to help people, can you politely say no? I’ve found the key is to keep it short and simple. Don’t try to explain yourself because that just gives the requester some room to try to change your mind. Here is my own list of ways to say no, which I’m happy to report I have been using a lot more lately.

  • Thank you so much for thinking of me, but I don’t have enough time to do this right now.
  • No thank you, I’m doing x instead and I loooove x. (This works well as a serious comment or a sarcastic one.)
  • I’m sorry, I know I won’t be able to focus on this and do a good job. I have to decline.
  • I can’t do this for you, but check with <insert someone’s name who can help>. (Don’t rely on this method too often or you’ll just overwhelm someone else.)
  • Why does this need to be done?
  • Here are the other things I’m working on, can you help me prioritize all these tasks? (This one is most appropriate when talking to your manager.)
  • <pause, as if you’re actually considering the task> No, I can’t.
  • No thank you, I can’t justify adding this to my plate right now.
  • Great idea! Why don’t you do that?
  • Come back later. (If you really want to help, but can’t at the moment.)

Are you saying no often enough? How are you saying it?

Eat That Frog!: A Book Review

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day.” – Mark Twain

This Mark Twain quote is the premise behind a wonderful productivity book with a funny name: Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time by Brian Tracy. In his book (which I finished in one sitting on a flight to San Francisco last December), Tracy highlights 21 productivity habits, that I have found myself coming back to again and again. Here, I’ll share a couple of the most useful nuggets, guaranteed to save you more time than you’ll spend reading the book (or this blog post)!

Concentrate Single-Mindedly On Your Most Important Task

The centerpiece skill that is developed throughout the book is your ability to concentrate single-mindedly on your most important task, follow-through, and get it done. Tracy insists that this is the key to success and happiness. If you can form a habit of doing this for everything in your life, you will accomplish wildly more than you imagined possible.

I believe it. On the days when I block off two hours at the beginning of the day and concentrate on my most important task until I finish, I feel really, REALLY good the rest of the day.

Eat That Frog! Encourages you to do this for everything in your life. But what if the task at hand is too big to finish in one sitting?

Tip #1: Seven Steps to Achieving Your Goals

Any goal can be achieved by following these seven steps and making sure you work on something that moves you toward your goal EVERY SINGLE DAY.

  1. Decide what you want to do.
  2. Write it down.
  3. Set a deadline (and sub-deadlines).
  4. Make a list of everything you can think of to achieve your goal.
  5. Organize the list into a plan.
  6. Take action on your plan immediately.
  7. Do something every single day that moves you toward your goal.

This is basic project management, boiled down to the essentials and accessible to anyone. It takes a little bit of up-front planning, but the beginning is the best time to pour your heart and soul into your new goal.

Tip #6: Plan Your Day with the ABCDE Method

I’ve written about planning out your day by adding timing to your to do list, but I’ve found that the ABCDE method of planning your day is even more powerful. Here’s how it works:

First, lay out your to do list for the day. Then, assign each item a letter: A, B, C, D, or E according to this key:

  • A = Very important task that only I can do (subdivide if necessary to prioritize tasks into A-1, A-2, etc)
  • B = Should do this task, but only minor consequences if I don’t
  • C = Nice to do this task, but no consequences
  • D = Delegate everything you don’t have to do
  • E = Eliminate any tasks that no one has to do

When I started to notice my notebook was numbered A-1, A-2…A-7 with no other letters, I switched the order in which I assigned labels. Now I search the list first for D’s. Delegating is a tough skill that takes practice, so I need to pay extra attention to it. After that I work my way backwards from E to A. That helps me avoid thinking of everything as the most important task.

This works amazingly well and helps me cope with not finishing parts of my to do list. If, at the end of the day I’ve only gotten A-1 done, so be it. At least I did the most important thing that I could that day.

Tip #20: What Would You Do If You Were Going on Vacation?

Sometimes, we are our worst enemies and it helps to have some tricks up our sleeves to overcome procrastination.

One question that Tracy suggests asking yourself when you’re not sure where to start is, “If I were leaving on a sudden week-long vacation tomorrow, what would I get done today?”

It’s so simple, but it tricks your brain into looking at your to do list in a different, healthy way!

There are 18 more, wonderful time management and productivity tips in Eat That Frog!. Reading the book may be one of the best time investments you make this year.

What is your favorite productivity habit?

Have a Blank Day (Quick Tip)

blank dayOpower, the energy-savings and utility software company where I work has only been around for a few years, but one of the reasons I love working here is that they aren’t afraid to try new, potentially game-changing things.

Once a month, if you walk around on the 7th floor of our building, you’ll see a bright, open space with people, headphones on, concentrating on something they’ve been meaning to get done for ages. Some people work from home. Some come in just before lunch to take advantage of the free food Opower provides to mark this special day. This is Blank Day.

What Is Blank Day?

Blank Day is a full day without meetings. The concept has been around for a long time. In fact, I’ve seen a lot of articles on the merits of “No Meeting Wednesdays“, but in reality, it doesn’t matter what day of the week you choose. On Blank Day, everyone is encouraged to remove all meetings from their calendars and concentrate on something important that they just haven’t gotten time to work on. Our entire R&D and Client Delivery organizations have embraced Blank Day. Even those who were skeptical at first (“what the hell am I supposed to do all day?!”) have since gotten on board.

Why I Love Blank Day

For me, Blank Day is a day of bliss. I use it to knock out all kinds of tasks, especially the ones that require more than an hour of my attention. I’ve used Blank Day to work on slides for a conference or an executive, I’ve blogged, I’ve laid out my ideas for new processes, and I’ve also come into Blank Day with a backlog of seven major things I wanted to get done and left with five of them completely finished (I knew seven was unattainable, but it was nice to have stretch goals). The advantages of Blank Day include:

  1. No excuse not to start: With an entire day ahead of you, there’s no excuse to procrastinate. I once put off a project that I suspected would take me half a day and I finished it in 45 minutes on Blank Day. I should have just started it days before, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that until I knew I had a chunk of time set aside.
  2. No meetings: Need I say more?
  3. Productivity: On Blank Days, it seems like I get the equivalent of a regular week’s worth of work done in a single day. What if we held them more often?
  4. Uninterrupted time: Some projects can’t be done in 30-minute or hour-long chunks. Software Engineers in particular need time to concentrate on their code. Blank Days give you that uninterrupted time.
  5. Flow: According to Positive Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow, or that state of being totally absorbed in something that’s both challenging and satisfying, is important for your mental health and happiness. To get there, you need to be doing something you love and the space to lose yourself in it.

Disadvantages of Blank Day

Each Blank Day I hear a couple of complaints:

  1. Meeting displacement: Your other days tend to fill up with meetings.
  2. Client calls: Not everyone can participate. If a client needs to meet on Blank Day, customers take precedence.

How to Carve Out Your Own Blank Day

Setting up a Blank Day for yourself is always easier if you have company, but you can make huge strides on your own.

Here are some steps to take to carve out your own Blank Day. If one of these doesn’t work, try another one.

  1. Block off your calendar: You don’t need to say anything to anyone, just do it. Block an entire day (each month or week) on your calendar and proactively avoid adding meetings to those days. Talk to people who schedule meetings over your work block and see if you can get them moved. It’s amazing how many people will start to naturally avoid inviting you to meetings on your Blank Day.
  2. Find friends: See if you can get your co-workers to agree on a day where no one will have meetings. Typically, it’s the managers who have an issue with this. Remind them that they have tasks they need to concentrate on too.
  3. Announce it: If #2 doesn’t work, announce that you’ve instituted Blank Day and explain why. People will respect your decision and I guarantee you’ll get more people who want to do it too, than who want you to stop doing it.
  4. Start small: If you can’t block off an entire day, why not start with two hours? Two hours of time to get something done is better than nothing!

What would you do if you had a Blank Day?

How to Be a Zero TV Family

We don’t have a TV in our house.

That admission is less shocking than it once was. The number of people who have dropped their cable subscription or never had one currently stands at around 10% and that number is growing. According to new research from Forrester as reported by NPR this week, that number will climb to 50% for adults under 32 by 2025. For us, that doesn’t mean that we never watch shows or movies online. It means that we don’t spend time with the TV on in the background, we don’t watch commercials, and we don’t watch anything we don’t really want to see.

We discovered the Zero TV lifestyle by accident many years ago. Nathan got a seasonal winter job working in Medora, ND, requiring us to pay for a house and an apartment for the winter. We didn’t want two cable bills too, so we bought a much cheaper Netflix subscription and spent a cozy winter watching Arrested Development online. In a small town in the middle of the prairie, you’d think TV would be an essential escape, but we quickly realized that we were wasting $50 a month paying for 140 channels we didn’t need to watch. It was an awesome and eye-opening winter. The next time we moved, we simply didn’t hook up cable TV and we got rid of our TV too.

What I Love About Being a Zero TV Household

  1. No cable bill: At $50 a month, we’re saving $600 a year by not paying for cable.
  2. No commercials: OK, there’s the occasional commercial online, but I don’t have to sit through 8 of them to watch a 22-minute show. Not watching commercials probably saves me money too. My kids aren’t bothering me about the latest toy craze and I don’t waste my time learning about something I don’t need. Granted, many people now have TiVO, but that’s an extra expense I don’t have to worry about.
  3. No politics: During the elongated political campaign season in the United States, the attack ads and constant news updates come fast and furious and they make me furious too. Imagine a world where you can simply turn them off. We did. Now, when I happen to catch political updates on CNN while waiting for a flight, they seem odd and petty. That alone reinforces my decision to go TV-free.
  4. More productivity: It’s easy to turn the TV on in the background, but that can be distracting. After a hard day’s work, I don’t immediately turn on the TV. Now, I do something else like read to my kids, finish a project, or grocery shop online. TV makes it too easy to lounge around. Not having a TV opens up a lot of time to do something better.
  5. Raising readers: There’s a big difference between kids that are constantly watching TV and those that are playing outside and reading. Pay attention and you’ll see it too. Too much TV has been proven to reduce vocabulary and math skills and decreases attention span, according to Professor Linda Pagani of the University of Montreal.  It’s easier to get kids to read when there isn’t a TV in the room.

 What Do We Miss About TV?

Sports events. In particular, we miss watching Badgers Football and the Superbowl at home. My husband wishes he could watch Nascar races. My kids aren’t up-to-date on their pop-culture because they haven’t seen the latest shows. Of course, they are only 5 and 2.

We get around these problems by socializing more. We can go to the DC Badgers game watch events or over to a friend’s house for the Superbowl. ESPN3 will sometimes stream the Badgers games online.

How to Be a Zero TV Family

So, how do we do it? Here are some specific steps you can take to become a Zero TV family.

Stop your cable subscription and get rid of the TV.

Not having a physical box at the center of your living room does wonders for encouraging you to spend your evenings doing something else you enjoy. The cash saved is nice too.

Figure out which of your favorite shows are offered online for free via the network website.

This may soon be a thing of the past, but I watch Downton Abbey on and used to catch every episode of The Amazing Race on Most shows are posted within 24 hours of the original viewing date.

Subscribe to Netflix, Hulu+, HBO, Amazon Prime, or the particular sports package you miss.

You certainly don’t need all of these!! We only use Netflix and that works great for us, but some shows/movies aren’t streaming (like Game of Thrones) so we wait for the disks or subscribe to see them another way. For sports, you can subscribe to MLB, NFL GamePass, and ESPN online. If there’s a particular sport you’re after, Google it. I’m sure there’s a subscription for everything.

Download one or two news apps on your phone and read them daily.

If you like to watch the news, save yourself some time and read only the headlines you care about. Every paper and news station has an app today. Download it and get your news whenever you want. Washington Post now has a subscription fee, but you can read stories from NBC 4 Washington for free.

Limit screen time for kids.

Just because the TV is gone doesn’t mean kids will stop surfing the internet or playing games. All screen time takes away valuable outdoor and reading time. So, set limits up-front and stick to them. If you start early enough kids won’t even miss the screen time.

Do you have additional tips for becoming a Zero TV family? Share them!

What I Learned From One Year of Minimalism

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I didn’t quite make my monetary goal for the year, but I learned an incredible amount that was far more valuable. Here, I’ll share a few things I’ve learned by trying to reduce “stuff” and obligations this year.

#1 – Marie Kondo can help you get organized

If you really want to reduce clutter and get your life organized, the KonMari method, which Marie Kondo outlines in her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, is, by far, the best method to use.

Her method is simple.

  1. Discard “stuff” by considering things by category (clothing, books, papers, etc), NOT by room. Ask yourself if each item sparks joy. If it doesn’t, get rid of it. You’re left with a household of things you truly love. I was surprised by how many things I used to have that I rather disliked.
  2. Organize completely. Don’t buy anything fancy, just organize using the storage room you have and maybe a couple of shoeboxes.

I have yet to make it to the “organize completely” phase, but I have been floored by how well the “discard” phase works. Of all of the methods I tried this year, I found Marie Kondo’s to be the most useful. Her book is a quick read and I highly recommend it.

#2 – Clean 10 minutes a day

Set a timer and see how much you can clean in just 10 minutes. Do it every day. This is the only way I can keep my house reasonably clean and it’s really painless. I can get a lot done in 10 minutes and when that timer goes off, I’m done. No guilt for anything left out, I can get that tomorrow because I know I’ll have another 10-minute opportunity then. Some days I get so much done that I’m motivated to continue – not because I have to – but because I want to. This habit gives me a fresh start to every day and it’s really easy.

#3 – Wait 30 days before you buy something

I’m not talking about cereal or deodorant. Go ahead and buy those when you need them. However, for items that you’ll use over and over again (that will persist long after you purchase them) give yourself a chance to think twice about them. The 30-day rule lets you consider other options or do some research. It also shows you how much you want an item. If you can’t stop thinking about it for 30 days, then it’ll probably be something you enjoy for a long time, so buy it.

#4 – Increase automatic savings when you get a promotion

If you get a 3% raise and you’re already sending 8% of your paycheck to your 401(k), increase the amount you save to 9-11% right away when you get a raise. You’ll still feel like you got a raise (unless you’re very disciplined and save the entire thing – kudos to you), but you’ll also painlessly increase your savings, which could mean an extra six figures or more when you retire.

#5 – Experience gifts are awesome

It turns out that wine, chocolate, trips, and my personal favorite, massages, have become my favorite things to give and receive. Experience gifts are consumable; things that people use up, so they don’t stay around the house. They make the best presents because they build memories instead of a stockpile of “stuff”. The Minimalist Mom has a great list of 90 clutter-free gifts for any occasion.

#6 – Don’t throw away anything that doesn’t belong to you

Even kids notice when something is missing. If anyone catches you in the act of discarding something that’s not yours, the hit to his or her trust is massive. It’s not worth it and eventually #7 happens.

#7 – Your family will start de-owning stuff on their own

I think my husband jumped on board shortly after I’d cleared off my side of the dresser for the first time since we bought it. It looked like the border between Haiti & the Dominican Republic.

Haiti & The Dominican Republic

Our dresser looked like this…only in our case the bare side was the best. Photo Credit: National Geographic

Our closet also became easier to use. Eventually I noticed that he’d gone through his massive T-shirt collection and had thrown a bunch away. He didn’t tell me he did it, but he did. Finally, we sat down and considered the family DVD collection together.

When you first start to de-own, it can be really hard to do it alone, knowing that the dent you’re making is only a fraction of the total family “stuff”. We’ve still got a ways to go, but I’ve noticed my family jumping on board, slowly but surely. Nathan has even mentioned (with a hint of gratitude that he may never admit to) how much cleaner certain rooms are now.

#8 – Time is your most precious resource

Seriously. Assuming you have basic necessities covered, nothing else matters (well, except your health). My new goal is focused on carving out more time for the things that matter (including health) because time debt is no longer something I’m willing to live with.

#9 – Shopping for groceries online is the best lifehack ever

I save 1-1.5 hours each week by shopping for groceries online and then picking them up at the store. I also save loads of money because I can easily see my total and kick things out of my cart. There are just so many very cool ways that shopping for groceries online makes my life easier. The link above to my online grocery-shopping manifesto is worth checking out if you’d like to try it. I lay out all the pros and cons.

#10 – Minimalism ruins the fun of shopping

I can’t just make an impulse purchase anymore. For example, if I’m shopping for clothes, I can’t just buy the first shirt I like. No, now there’s a little voice inside my head asking annoying questions like, “Is this well-made?” “Is this versatile?” “Does it look amazing on me?” It’s a great voice, but sometimes I wish I hadn’t swallowed the red pill and changed my life forever.

#11 – It is impossible to get kids to get rid of stuff

Many will tell you they’ve succeeded in getting their kids to give away their toys. I’ll believe it when I figure out a way that works with my kids.

#12 – One extracurricular activity per week per family member is more than enough

This rule helps us all minimize the craziness that comes with too many obligations. It keeps us (the parents) from turning into a shuttle service and it helps us all prioritize what activities we really want to be involved in. I’ve also found that constricting activities to weekdays is helpful. That leaves our weekends freed up to explore and go on Family Adventure Days. Alison has soccer, Maddie is in gymnastics, and I stay late at work one night a week for yoga. Perhaps this only works because our kids are so young, but the rule works for us right now.

#13 – Minimalism is a journey

At first, I naively thought I could organize my entire life and then sit back and reap the rewards. Then the junk mail showed up and our kids had birthdays and received a bunch of presents. Freeing yourself from your stuff only works as well as your system for ensuring new stuff doesn’t catch you offhand. Figure out how you’ll defend yourself before you get started and you’ll have an easier time sticking to your wonderful new excess-free world.

One Year of Minimalism

I find it funny that my list naturally came out to an “unlucky” 13 items because I feel so lucky to have stumbled upon this project for the last year. It’s changed how I think about the world and how I make decisions daily. I am, without a doubt, living a life closer to my dream life. I am excited to continue it with a new goal and I’m glad that you’ve been reading.

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